He has had games in which he glided and swerved and put double-century rushing numbers in the book so effortlessly that you thought he was playing a different level of football than the people trying to tackle him. He has had games in which his gains came in tightfisted little chunks and he seemed to be accumulating yardage by sheer force of will. But in his spectacular four-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, Emmitt Smith has never had a better afternoon than the one he had in that heavyweight championship of a game the Cowboys played on Sunday against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium.
"A heavyweight championship fight? Make that a great heavyweight fight," said Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson after his Cowboys won 16-13 in overtime. "People fighting for a yard, working the clock, clawing and scratching for inches. And how about Emmitt? Wasn't he something today?"
It was all on the line: The winner takes the division title and the home field for the entire postseason, the loser gets in as a wild card. And Smith, playing the last two quarters with what the Cowboy medical staff called a No. 1 separation of the right shoulder, put up the following numbers: 168 yards rushing on 32 carries, another 61 yards on 10 pass receptions. He handled the ball on 42 of Dallas's 70 plays, and he gained 229 of its 339 yards. And in the overtime, with his right arm dangling uselessly between plays, Smith got the call on nine of the Cowboys' 11 snaps and gained all but 11 of their 52 yards on the drive that positioned them for Eddie Murray's winning 41-yard field goal with just over four minutes left in the extra period.
"Emmitt was hurting, he was done," right guard Kevin Gogan said afterward. "He sucked it up for his boys. I don't know how he did it."
"In the huddle he told me, "Run behind me and pick me up. I don't want to lay on the ground,' " left guard Nate Newton said, his eyes brimming with tears. "Man, was he ever hurting today."
The injury came on Smith's longest gain of the day, 46 yards, late in the second quarter, which ended when safely Greg Jackson slammed him to the artificial turf. "A power right—we pull around and Emmitt breaks through the hole," Newton said. "When Emmitt didn't get up, I knew it was bad. It takes an awful lot to keep him on the ground."
Smith left the game. Dallas ran off half a dozen more plays and kicked a field goal that made the halftime score 13-0. That capped two quarters of domination by the Cowboys, who were putting together an apparent repeat of the 31-9 beating they inflicted on the Giants in November, except that they did most of their damage in the air that day. On Sunday it was the Emmitt Smith show—tough, punishing, ball-control football. In the first half, Dallas ran off 41 plays to New York's 15, gained 13 first downs to the Giants' two and piled up 238 yards to 68 for New York. One play early in the third quarter changed all that.
On a Giant punt from midfield, Brock Marion, a Cowboy reserve safety, got a piece of the ball, which then spun 18 yards downfield. Kevin Williams, hoping for the big return that would put the game away, tried to field the ball on the run and fumbled, and the Giants recovered it on the Dallas 39. The Giants were in business.
They banged in for a touchdown and then drove for a field goal on their next possession to make the score 13-10. And Dallas was in trouble. Smith was playing, but he was in obvious pain. "Each time he came in, he was squeezing the arm tighter to his body," fullback Daryl Johnston said. "You could see the pain on his face. That's why we started running outside more, so he could use the sideline and didn't have to take the big hit."
New York had a hammer of its own, 5'11", 215-pound Rodney Hampton (30 carries, 114 yards), a runner without Smith's flair but also plenty tough. On the Giants' 69-yard, fourth-quarter drive that led to the David Treadwell field goal that sent the game into overtime, Hampton ran the ball on nine of the 12 plays. When New York reached the Dallas 22 with 1:09 to play, Hampton got the call twice, with the clock running, and as it became obvious that the Giants were positioning themselves for the field goal, the crowd groaned. Throw the ball, dammit. Win the game outright.